Thomas MacKay built the stone villa, which forms the main part of the present official residence, in 1838, as a home for his family. MacKay was a stonemason and contractor who built the entrance locks of the Rideau Canal and the mills at Rideau Falls. Rideau Hall is named for these landmarks and has been home to every governor general since Confederation. Period photographs show it as a rectangular, three-storey stone villa with a semi-circular facade on the garden.
In 1865, the house was leased to the Canadian government as a residence for Lord Monck, the 21st governor general of British North America who became Canada's 1st governor general. Bytown had been renamed Ottawa and chosen by Queen Victoria as the new capital of the province of Canada. That same year, Lord Monck added a long two-storey wing that was meant to resemble his beloved Quebec City residence, Spencer Wood (renamed Bois-de-Coulonge in 1950). Lord Monck also laid out the handsome path that leads to the house.
In 1868, the year after Confederation, the Government of Canada purchased the house and grounds for $82,000 as an official residence for Canada's governors general. In the time of Canada's third Governor General, Lord Dufferin (1872-1878), the Ballroom and the Tent Room were built as wings on either side of the front entrance. The Tent Room was originally designed as both an indoor tennis court and reception room. It is now used for official and ceremonial functions.
The Minto Wing was added in 1899 to supply more living space. The governor general's study, with its window overlooking the gardens, was built in 1906 during the mandate of Lord Grey.
Many changes were made during the tenure of the Duke of Connaught (1911-1916). In 1913, work was completed on the interior entrance hall and the present front entrance. The massive motif of the Royal Arms visible from the driveway, is said to be one of the largest in the world. Also in 1913, the Long Gallery was added and the Dining Room enlarged. Concerned about the lack of sunlight in the residence, the Duke had many of the fir trees on the grounds replaced with maples and other species.
Over the years, various changes have been made to the stately old building to meet the demands of modern times, including media and security requirements. The grounds, the building and its interiors have also evolved to better reflect and reinforce Rideau Hall's identity as Canada's national home. Over the years, an increasing emphasis on showcasing fine Canadian art, furniture, food and wine have contributed to a truly Canadian environment where Canadians are honoured, dignitaries are welcomed and affairs of State are conducted.
The Queen, other royal visitors and foreign heads of State stay at Rideau Hall when they visit Ottawa. Many have planted trees on the 32-hectare (79-acre) grounds, which include other historic outbuildings, gardens, greenhouses, woods, tennis courts and a cricket pitch.
Rideau Hall is the historic home and workplace of the governor general. It is open to the public year round and offers various activities such as guided tours of the residence and the grounds. As many as 200 000 people come to Rideau Hall every year to tour the grounds and the residence or to take part in official events.